Who’s Likely To Fill Each CPL Club’s U-21 Minutes?
The 2022 Canadian Premier League season produced a number of breakout domestic U-21 stars, some of whom earned moves to other clubs in North America and abroad. While some teams struggled to fill minutes and did so just to meet the quota, others held integral roles in matchday squads.
The race for Best Canadian U-21 Player is wide open this season with Sean Rea returning to CF Montreal at the end of his loan, and Osaze De Rosario and Woobens Pacius aging out. A number of key arrivals with significant pedigree should make this year’s competition an interesting one.
The opening weeks of this season have given us an idea of who is likely to fill each club’s minute quota, and which teams may have trouble doing so.
During the 2023 season, a player must be born in 2002 or later to qualify as a U-21. Every team must have at least three domestic U-21 players on their roster at any given time, and loanees can fulfill up to a maximum of 1,000 minutes each.
Ottawa had a hard time reaching the threshold last season, with Zakaria Bahous playing a majority of their U-21 minutes. Ottawa took until the end of the season to reach the requirement but should have less issues this time around.
Jean-Aniel Assi, FW – At 18-years-old, Assi is a veteran of the league. He returns to the league on loan for his second season after making 19 league appearances with Cavalry FC in 2022-23. The winger started the season opener for Ottawa and could be the next player to join CF Montreal’s first team after plying his trade in the CPL, following the likes of Jonathan Sirois and Sean Rea.
Gabriel Antinoro, MF – Another CF Montreal academy product joins Ottawa in the form of 18-year-old Antinoro. Unlike Assi, the midfielder signed a permanent two-year deal in the offseason and should bring creativity and pace to the midfield. He has featured in both CPL matches so far this season.
Zachary Roy, DF – Roy is the only U-21 returnee to Ottawa, and his familiarity with Carlos Gonzalez should see him in an increased role for the side despite having yet to feature in 2023. The defender logged 422 minutes last season.
Others eligible: Junior Agyekum
Tommy Wheeldon Jr. has embraced his role as a developmental coach like few others have. He consistently allows his young players to play and hasn’t stopped them from moving abroad when their time comes. After the departures of Victor Loturi and Aribim Pepple in 2022, Wheeldon will look to work his magic on Cavalry’s latest batch of U-21’s which features only two of six on standard player contracts.
Goteh Ntignee, FW – Ntignee has already accumulated more minutes for Cavalry in all competitions in 2023 than he did in his two appearances in 2022. The 21-year-old can play anywhere across a front three if required. The Calgary native spent time in Germany’s fourth tier before joining Cavalry prior to last season.
Gareth Smith-Doyle, FW – Smith-Doyle is a traditional centre forward who signed a standard player contract partway through the 2022 season. The six-foot-two Calgary-native scored nine goals in nine games for Cavalry’s U-20 squad during the 2022 AMSL season and left the University of Calgary Dinos to pursue a pro career after being named to the Canada West All-Rookie Team.
Others eligible: Michael Harms, Joseph Holliday, Nikolas Myroniuk, William Omoreniye
Despite boasting three league titles and the deepest squad in the league, Bobby Smyrniotis has yet to produce any high-end CPL exports, U-21 or otherwise. This may have more to do with the fact that his top contributors continue to stick around, but 2023 could be the year this changes.
Kwasi Poku, DF – The 19-year-old fullback is in line for a big season with Forge amidst interest from European clubs. The versatile Poku went for an offseason training stint with Swedish giants BK Hacken. He should be in line for a heap of minutes after featuring regularly in years past, and with Forge’s treble aspirations likely causing significant squad rotation.
Sebastian Castello, MF – Castello is a known commodity for Smyrniotis after a combined 13 appearances across all competitions for Forge through the 2021 and 2022 seasons. He scored his first goal for the club during the 2021 season but hasn’t featured in a matchday squad since August 6, 2022. The 19-year-old Mississauga-native is a product of Sigma FC.
Others eligible: Christopher Kalongo, Khadim Kane
HFX Wanderers FC
Boasting one of the youngest squads in the CPL this season and amidst significant turnover, Patrice Gheisar should give his U-21’s every opportunity to prove themselves. The question is: will it lead to success and an entertaining on-field products for one of the league’s most passionate fanbases?
Tiago Coimbra, FW – “Canada”, as he came to be known in Brazil, joins Halifax after spending time with the youth sides of Palmeiras. The 6’2 striker recently featured for Canada at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, notching a goal against Saint Kitts and Nevis. He will hope to get off the mark early as the team looks to replace the chunk of goals likely left on the table by the departure of Samuel Salter. Coimbra will hope to stick around, although the nickname may not.
Tomas Giraldo, MF – Another CPL arrival from CF Montreal, Giraldo will hope his second move to the league goes better than the first. The 20-year-old was penned for a loan to FC Edmonton in 2021, but an injury got in the way. His 2022 season was also marred by injury, which required surgery on his foot. Now healthy, Giraldo will look to play a part in the club’s youth insurgence.
Armaan Wilson, MF – Wilson joins after three seasons with the NCAA’s Providence College. Wilson notched one goal and four assists for the Friars in his latest season. The central midfielder has familiarity with new HFX coach Patrice Gheisar after also plying his trade with League1 Ontario side Woodbridge Strikers during the summer.
Others eligible: Aiden Rushenas, Ethan Schilte-Brown, Kimani Stewart-Baynes
As a side with title ambitions, Pacific will likely rely on veterans to get them there, leaving the youngsters in a tough battle for minutes.
Emil Gazdov, GK – The goalkeeper opens the 2023 campaign as Pacific’s starter at the age of just 19-years-old. Gazdov may not have a long leash however, as the club also boasts Kieran Baskett, who eagerly awaits his chance. Should Gazdov continue to perform like he did in week one – posting a clean sheet – he could contribute a large chunk of the team’s U-21 minutes.
Paul Amedume, DF – Amedume spent the 2022 season on loan playing under former Pacific FC manager Pa-Modou Kah at MLS Next Pro’s North Texas Soccer Club. The centre-back appeared 19 times for the club, notching one goal and one assist. He also made two appearances for Pacific during their title-winning 2021 season. He should provide good cover for Amer Didic and Thomas Meilleur-Giguere.
Eric Lajeunesse, DF – The six-foot-two center-back is on a U SPORTS Player Contract and doesn’t have any restrictions on minutes or appearances towards U-21 minutes like loanees and Development Contract players do, making him a potentially valuable piece. Lajeunesse is an Ottawa-native who recently finished his freshman season at UBC. He is comfortable with the ball at his feet and went 90 minutes for Pacific in their week two draw with Cavalry. If he shows well, don’t be surprised if he’s rewarded with a Standard Player Contract.
Others eligible: Abdul Binate, Jack Garner, Sam Marvasti
Valour have fielded a league-high 302 minutes from their U-21’s through the first two weeks white sitting atop the table. As arguably the league’s biggest wild-card, Phil Dos Santos’ side could benefit significantly from an injection of youth. This should be a side that features minimal rotation though, especially after their upset loss to League1 British Columbia’s TSS Rovers in the Canadian Championship eased fixture congestion.
Matteo de Brienne, DF, FW – After a relatively slow start to 2022, the wide man became a regular in the latter half of the season due to his pace, creativity and flair. The Vancouver Whitecaps academy product primarily played in the front three in his debut CPL campaign but starts 2023 as a left-back – a position he has played at other levels. He contributed three goals in 885 minutes in 2022.
Juan Pablo Sanchez, MF – Having previously spent time at the Toronto FC Academy, Sanchez joins after spending the previous two seasons with SC Salgueiros in Portugal. Valour coach Phil Dos Santos described Sanchez as “technically gifted” with a good passing range, an ability to create in the final third and a “great mentality.”
Jared Ulloa, FW – The 20-year-old joins the Winnipeg-outfit after playing 808 minutes across 16 appearances for Peruvian second-division side Cusco FC in 2022, helping them win the championship and gain promotion. This is Ulloa’s second stint with Valour after appearing in 22 league matches on loan during the 2021 season.
Others eligible: Eskander Mzoughi
Afshin Ghotbi will have a tough task ahead of him this season – not only to try and avoid a similar fate to the one Atletico Ottawa had in its first season but choosing when and for how long to play his mostly unproven U-21’s as a result. VFC was the only outfit to not feature a U-21 player in week one. Who ends up with the most U-21 minutes on this side is anyone’s guess.
Anthony White, DF – White was the CPL U-SPORTS Draft’s youngest-ever first-overall pick, and the center-back didn’t need to wait too long to sign a standard player contract – a rarity for most picks. Although most sign a U SPORTS deal, White proved that he belongs at this level, and decided to forego his final years of eligibility at the University of Toronto as a result. The B.C.-native will look to become a hometown hero of sorts in his first taste of professional soccer.
Mamadou Kane, FW – As the only VFC player on this list with previous CPL experience, Kane will have an opportunity for minutes on a squad that may find goals hard to come by. Kane featured in 11 matches for York United in 2022, accumulating 291 minutes. He also set up a goal in York’s Canadian Championship loss against the Vancouver Whitecaps. He also made seven appearances for FC Edmonton in 2022 after a mid-season loan move.
Tyler Crawford, DF – Crawford joins VFC after a lone season at Michigan State University where he played the most minutes of any freshman on the squad. The 19-year-old played in two matches for the Canadian U-20 squad in April 2022, as well as having spent time in the Columbus Crew Academy where he was named their Academy Player of the Year in 2021. The left-back made his first appearance for the club in their 2-1 win over York, starting the match before being substituted off in second-half stoppage time.
Others eligible: Mael Henry
York United FC
From being one of the youngest squads in the league in 2022 to being the oldest in 2023, York added a number of established CPLers in an attempt to push the team into the upper half of the table. However, it may once again have one of the strongest group of U-21’s in the league.
Markiyan Voytsekhovskyy, MF – The 19-year-old was named League1 Ontario’s Young Player of the Year and was named to the Team of the Year after scoring 10 goals in 21 games in 2022. He previously spent time with Shakhtar Donetsk’s academy. Voytsekhovksyy scored his first professional goal for York in their second week loss to Vancouver FC.
Noah Abatneh, DF – The full-back joins York United with no shortage of pedigree after joining the Lazio Academy in 2020. Abatneh appeared in 8 matches in Serie D on loan for two separate sides. He will have every chance to win a spot in the backline after significant turnover there in the offseason.
Theo Afework, FW – Afework made his way to German side FC Nurnberg in 2022 and impressed for their U-19’s, earning increased minutes. The 19-year-old has followed a very similar path to Ronan Kratt, arriving in the CPL for York after an initial stint in Germany. He will hope to continue that path, in eventually making his way back to Europe. However, Afework is sidelined with a quad issue and should return to training in July or August, according to York’s Angus McNab.
Others eligible: Eleias Himaras, Ivan Pavela, Toby Richardson